Prime Minister Matteo Renzi will likely approach the EU Council with two key concerns in mind, and the first concern will continue to be Turkey. According to the head of the Italian government, it’s a good thing that we have a deal which, far from being perfect, involves Turkey. Nonetheless, Europe needs to be careful not to abandon its hard stance on human rights. The second concern is the rising issue of the Adriatic migration route, which may become the course of least resistance for refugees following closure of the Balkan route. Renzi might just be tempted link the two issues.
During last weekend’s meeting of European progressive parties in Paris, Prime Minister Renzi reiterated that Italy welcomes Turkey’s path towards the EU, recognises its tremendous economic potential and appreciates the role Turkey plays in the refugee crisis. However, the Italian government maintains its strong stance on Turkey’s democratic process. The Italian view is that Europe should not close its eyes to issues where fundamental freedoms are being denied. During the meeting, Renzi took the opportunity to call again for a more united Europe. According to the Italian prime minister, if Europe continues calling for summits every two weeks, it will give the impression that it is unable to deal with epochal issues like the migration crisis we are currently dealing with.
The government’s approach to Turkey remains a key issue in the domestic debate because the populist and anti-European opposition have differing views on Turkey. For the North League leader – MEP Matteo Salvini – Turkey is a danger; it is not part of the civilised world because it does not respect civil rights. Salvini believes that the €3 billion we give Erdoğan should go to unemployed European citizens. For the Five Star Movement (5SM), Turkey is not a part of Europe because its violation of civil rights, and repression of free demonstrations goes against EU values. Not to mention its policy on the Kurds. For all these reasons the 5SM believe that Europe should not give Turkey money as it is an unfaithful ally.
Right after the last Foreign Affairs Council meeting, Foreign Minister Gentiloni underlined the importance of understanding the exact contours – especially in law – of the agreement with Turkey. He also reiterated that Italy, which has historically been in favour of a rapprochement with Turkey, is fully aware of the fact that the deal on migration cannot solve everything – especially human rights issues and the government’s clampdown on the free press.
The second issue that Italy fears is that the closing of the Balkan route might lead to the opening, or rather “re-opening” of another route – the Adriatic one. But this is not only about politics. Italians will never forget the waves of migration arriving from Albania in the 90s following the collapse of the regime – a phenomena which generated huge solidarity among Italians as well as political clashes and harsh debate among the political elite. This is why, in the last few days, Foreign Minister Gentiloni went to Tirana to meet his counterpart and key Albanian political figures to discuss a common plan aimed at promoting the exchange of information and at strengthening operational cooperation on the Adriatic route. The Italian press put a lot of emphasis on the official visit. The potential of the Adriatic route becoming a dominant channel is considered to be one of the biggest risks for Italy. According to Italy’s main newspapers, if the “Turkish card” does not work, Albania will become the major country of departure of refugees reaching the EU, and the Puglia region will be the new door to Europe.
The Adriatic route could easily become a focal domestic issue that Renzi wants to take to the European level. Migration is still a strong issue in Italy, and never been so debated as it is now. As in other states it becomes an electoral issue. Not only because Renzi has put the refugee crisis at the very centre of his European discourse, or because right-populist parties have never been so visible in Italy as they are now, but because Italians themselves are involved in the topic. According to the latest Eurobarometer, Italians perceive migration as the most important issue the EU is facing. Sixty-nine percent of them say they are in favour of “a common European policy on migration” and in favour of additional measures to combat illegal immigration of people from outside the EU. However, 46 percent think that Italy must not help refugees. Security is another concern and terrorism is now seen as the second most important issue facing the EU (it is now perceived as even more important than the economic situation).
Italy looks ready to support the Turkey deal and to support German efforts as the main channel of dialogue with Turkey. Renzi’s stance looks to be the same as the German one. The granting of aid to Turkey is considered an important precedent, because if the EU does it for Turkey, then maybe they should do it for Albania or even Libya, once stabilised. The principle of supporting neighbours is becoming more and more important for Rome.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.